Chanukah will trigger an increased caseload, said Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey. “We’ll easily provide over 100 families with gifts for kids,” she said.
Those gifts, said Kaufman, were obtained “through generous donations by community members,” including, for example, Hebrew school students at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel, who held a toy drive for the agency.
Presents were also received from Flames of Giving, established several years ago by Sari Gross, a congregant at Wayne’s Temple Beth Tikvah. Students at the shul’s religious school collect items for JFS, the Federation Apartments in Paterson, CafÃ© Europa (a project for Holocaust survivors), and Paterson elementary schools.
According to Kaufman, the group receives the items from both individuals and companies. The gifts, however, address only part of the problem, she said.
“As with all holidays, many people suffer depression, especially those having major losses,” she said. Whether personal or job-related, these losses can lead to decreased self-esteem, “almost feeling hopeless – remembering how the holidays were [once] spent and knowing that you are now unable to do that.”
“We’ve seen the demand for services increase,” said Kaufman, citing the economic downturn as the major factor, “but funding is so limited.”
Even if the agency determines that a client’s problems involve financial issues, it may not have sufficient funds to help. In that case, she said, JFS tries to link that client with other community agencies.
“For struggling families, the biggest thing we see is depression,” said Lisa Fedder, Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and North Hudson’s executive director. “People have a fantasy of what they want to do, but they can’t do it. It makes you feel inadequate.”
The job of JFS is to show them that it is “much bigger than you. It’s not [about] your failed choices. On some level, all of society has failed.”
Fedder said all holidays bring people into JFS offices seeking help, often to deal with “old, unresolved issues.”
“Holidays bring up a lot of family issues,” she said. “In some cases, people – and relationships – are struggling anyway. You see these wonderful images on TV, but life doesn’t always live up to that.”
The JFS director said that while certain donors give the agency toys to distribute for the holiday, “We can always use more. We’re dealing with so many more kids and with the economic downturn. When people get money, they go to clothes and books rather than something fun.”
Equally important, she said, are donations to the agency’s food pantry, as well as funds for supermarket gift cards.
In her own family, she said, her children were urged to designate the value of one night’s gift for a particular charity, rather than get a gift themselves that night.
“We felt it was important to remind them that not everyone has enough,” she said. “We would also use that night to distribute the money from our tzedakah box,” partially funded by her children’s allowance.
Esther East, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Clifton-Passaic, noted that “when families are struggling to put food on the table, there’s no money for toys.” As with the North Jersey agency, though, she said, toys have been readily provided through donations.
“The families are extraordinarily grateful,” she said. “The kids get them, and it means a lot.”
She noted, however, that requests are coming in for items such as laptops and exercise equipment, which families can no longer provide for themselves.
Computers, she said, are particularly important, since without them, “Kids are not part of the world in which they’re being educated. A toy drive doesn’t get that.”
East said people who were considering making more substantial donations might want to give one of these “bigger ticket items.” For example, she said, she knows of one family who “desperately needs a car. Someone might have an opportunity to do this.”
East said that in these difficult times, “JFS is the only place to go where we’ll still see you without insurance. It’s a gift to the community from federation.”
While she expects to see some holiday-related depression, “We don’t experience so much at this time of year but generally see it more around Passover,” she said. “It doesn’t hit so much during Chanukah for Jews as it does at Christmas for non-Jews.”
Still, she said, with the arrival of the secular New Year, people may begin to question where they are in their lives.